Monthly Archives: February 2009

What being a good teammate means

Not sure what got me thinking about this yesterday, but I think it’s a good story and worth telling. It’s about a young lady who really understood the concept of being a teammate, and no doubt still does.

This happened a couple of years ago. About halfway through her sophomore season, my daughter was moved from JV to varsity. She’s actually resisted moving up because she loves pitching. She was pitching nearly every game at JV, but knew there was no way she’d pitch on varsity because they already had a #1 pitcher, and she was a stud. The girl had been pitching varsity since her freshman year. She was now a senior and well-established in our area, which plays a pretty good caliber of high school softball.

I hadn’t seen much of her since she was younger, when she played for a team that was between the ages of my two daughters. She was very good even back then. So I have to admit, I was a bit suspicious of what she’d be like on the high school team. I have seen and heard stories about kids, especially pitchers, who gain that kind of recognition and turn into the typical “Princess in the Circle.” They tend to act like they’re God’s gift to softball, and tend to pout when they aren’t in the spotlight.

What I saw in action, though, was the polar opposite. This girl was the biggest booster of her teammates, always there with a kind word or a pat on the back for the others. She was also the consumate team player, which I saw one day in particular.

Our high school team was playing one of the weak sisters in the area, so she was not pitching that game. As I recall they had her DH for a while, but even that stopped when we built a big lead. Now, the typical Princess might have sulked in dugout at not getting the opportunity to pad her already-impressive stats. Even a non-Princess stud might’ve just hung out in the dugout, not doing much. Instead, this girl was being a good teammate, cheering actively for the others and shouting out encouragement.

More interesting to me, though, was that she was playing bat girl. After a hitter would get on base, she’d go onto the field, retrieve the bat, and bring it back into the dugout. Not because anyone told her to, but because it needed to be done. She’d also go to the outfield to warm up the outfielder closest to the dugout. Basically, she did the kind of jobs you would expect a non-starter to do, not a stud.

The girl’s name is Lauren Ott, and she went on to play at Butler University. To me, she epitomizes the team player — the kind who thinks no job is too small or unimportant for her to do.


Does the grip matter?

So, I was working with our players today on hitting when I noticed something with one of them. As I looked at her hands I could see that she was holding the bat handle deep in her palms, and her knuckles were in the “matched grip” position, i.e. the knocking knuckles on one hand were lined up with the big knuckles of the other.

I stopped her for a moment, double checked what I thought I was seeing, and had her move the bat into her fingers and turn her hands so the knocking knuckles lined up (more or less) with each other. She then continued hitting, but with measurably better results. Instead of hitting weak ground balls and fly balls, she started blasting line drives.

Afterwards, she was pretty pleased. I asked her if anyone had ever told her about moving the bat into her fingers before and she said no. It was the first she’d heard of either.

Previously we had noticed she tended to let go of the bat early — her top hand would often come off at contact, where it would hang down while the bottom hand finished pulling the bat around. We tried to get her to hang on to the bat longer but it was a struggle. After changing her grip she was holding the bat all the way through the swing without being reminded.

Now, understand this is her first year playing travel ball. She had played rec ball and high school (including varsity last year). No’ one had told her about the fingers and the knuckles, though. We didn’t even think to look either. I personally assume kids know it by the time they’re high school age. Apparently not.

The girl was pretty excited about this discovery. We both commented on the big difference a small change can make. She is a very good athlete, and probably got by mostly on that. But athleticism coupled with good technique is better than athleticism alone.

Now, there are those who will say the grip isn’t that important. I beg to differ. This one simple change made a world of difference for this girl by putting her into a stronger position at contact. My guess is the bat used to get knocked back somewhat when it was in the palms. It doesn’t anymore. So learn from my lesson and don’t assume. If you have a hitter who just isn’t hitting to her potential, or is releasing the bat too early, check her grip.

Video of the slug bunt

A few posts ago I put up a post about the slug bunt, also known as the fake bunt and slap. Afterwards, Stevepic at the Discuss Fastpitch Forum asked me to post a video of it.

It took a little while to get it, but here it is. It’s Kathleen, one of my players, executing it in the batting cage. Note that she keeps her shoulders forward (mostly) and uses top hand only to make contact. 

Kathleen executes a good slug bunt/fake bunt and slap

You just never know

We live in a society that expects instant results. Often there is very little patience or willingness to hang in there while players find themselves.

I’ve certainly seen that with teaching pitching and hitting. Some kids (and/or their parents) will take a couple of lessons and expect that somehow, magically, the player will instantly become better. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Improvement comes in increments. Some learn faster than others, just like some learn math or a foreign language faster than others. But it’s not instant.

And sometimes it can take a long time. I have had pitching students who just couldn’t seem to get the feeling of attacking the pitch. They’d go through the motions, but without that intent to throw hard. Then one day, the lightbulb comes on and bang! They get a significant speed jump.

What is interesting to me in those cases is the parents who see it and DO have the patience to wait until their child comes out of the gate. It can’t be easy. You’re paying for lessons, and while there is some general improvement it’s not really the kind of results you’d hope for. But rather than giving up, they stick with it, and their patience is rewarded.

Now, if the kid really doesn’t want to be there it’s never going to happen. I’ve had a couple of those, but fortunately only a couple. In those cases I do try to tell the parents it’s not working. But if the player is enthused about the lessons, I’ll keep going as long as she wants to because I know what we’re doing will work when the time is right.

Quite frankly, as a coach I wish every kid could get things instantly. It would be easier on everyone. But that’s not the case. As the song (and the Bible verse on which it’s based) says, there is a time to every purpose under Heaven. Sometimes that time isn’t right away. But if what you’re doing is the right way to go about it, and you put in the effort, sooner or later it will take hold.

I am probably proudest of the students for whom it didn’t come easy — the ones who hung in there until the lightbulb came on. Because when it does, it’s a bigger deal than it was for the kids who were able to do it right away. I’m also confident that they have acquired a skill that will serve them well their entire lives — the skill of persistence.

It’s easy to think if it doesn’t happen right away that it never will. But you just never know. And remember — it doesn’t matter where you start the race. Only where you finish it.

Lesson cost (a bit of humor)

Don’t know what made me think of this tonight, but I was thinking about the sign you often see in auto repair shops that list the “rates” for fixing your car. Here’s my take on it:

Pitching Lessons Price List

  • $40 per hour

  • $50 per hour if you want to offer suggestions

  • $60 per hour if you tried to teach her first

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

Pitching + touching your shoulder = elbow pain

For a couple of years now I have been talking to pitchers and their parents about the dangers of forcing the hand to come up and touch the shoulder on the follow-through. I had heard from reliable sources (Cheri Kempf among others) how this movement put unnecessary stress on the ligaments of the elbow and could lead to elbow pain. Made sense to me, especially when I tried the movement myself.

Yet I have seen that move being taught by other pitching coaches. When I’ve done clinics and such I’ve had kids telling me “but my other pitching coach said I should do that.” Thankfully the other pitching coach didn’t tell them to jump off a bridge too.

I think the “logic” behind touching the shoulder is to try and get the pitcher not to stop her hand at her side, which is a good thing. But in touching your shoulder with your fingers after throwing you’re just trading one problem for another. And in this case, trading a performance problem for a health one.

All of that was pretty much theoretical, however, until this past week. I now have direct evidence of the dangers of “snapping up” and touching the shoulder instead of following through long and loose.

The first incident was with one of my top students. She had picked up a habit of pulling her hand straight up to snap the ball out — sort of like doing arm curls with a dumbbell. I’d told her to follow through long, but she couldn’t break the habit. Last week she came to her lesson with an elbow brace on. She’d developed a lot of pain in her elbow and hurt to pitch. After a long, slow warm-up she wanted to try pitching the full distance. I told her to work on following through long and loose instead of pulling her hand up. By the end of the lesson she was throwing full speed, harder than before, and pain-free. She was amazed that it could feel so good after hurting so much. But that’s the power of a proper finish.

Today I was talking to the father of another student who was comparing what I had taught his daughter to what her old coach had taught her. He said with his method (touching the shoulder) her elbow always hurt, sometimes to the point of tears. Since coming to me and learning to finish long and loose instead of touching her shoulder, she was pain-free.

Now, I know two is hardly a scientific sample. But two on top of other evidence I’ve heard is pretty clear. If you are a pitcher (or you have a daughter who is one) and you’re being told to touch your shoulder to finish the pitch, you are putting your health at risk. My advice would be to stop that immediately, and find another coach if necessary. There are a lot of good and proper ways to finish the follow-through. Stressing your elbow isn’t one of them.

Help for hitters who are dropping the back shoulder

In science, the proper way to conduct an experiment is to limit the number of variables to one. In other words, all else is the same except for one thing that changes. That way you know whether the one variable that changed was the cause of the success or failure of the experiment.

We had that opportunity earlier today. We were working with our 18U hitters, which is our usual routine on Sunday mornings. Today was a machine day. We had the Jugs Jr. cranked up to 100%, and as it turned out we were shooting balls from about 30 feet. We actually had planned on going from 35, but the plate was moved up in the cage and we just left it there.

In any case, most of the girls were doing fine, but a few were having some trouble. Mostly, they were swinging under the ball. So we told them to lower their front shoulders as they went to toe touch. This was a point we learned from Deb Hartwig at the National Sports Clinics. She showed how all top hitters have their front shoulders lower than the back at this point. It’s something you don’t hear about in even the latest hitting videos, but it seems essential to great hitting.

Lowering the front shoulder was the only change we made. Yet in every case the hitter went from missing completely to hitting the ball solidly. At this point it was more of a reminder than a real change — they all know they need to be in that position. But sometimes they forget, especially in the heat of high-speed BP.

If you have hitters struggling with swinging under the ball, or just with dropping their back shoulders to go into launch, have them work on lowering the front shoulder. It works!

A little trick for the backhand change

Garden Kneepad Article 010

Previously I’ve talked about the importance of keeping a bit of a bend in the arm when you’re throwing the backhand change. That helps get rid of the dreaded “hump” in the pitch, where it starts to go out, then goes up a little — right into the hitter’s wheelhouse. Raising the arm slightly allows the pitcher to throw it out flat, which will keep it down.

Sometimes, however, pitchers think they’re bending the arm to pull the ball up but they’re actually not. Here’s a way to help them get the feel of it.

Take a lightweight object and hold it at the pitcher’s release point. I usually use a garden kneeling pad since it’s flexible. Hold it at the bottom of the normal circle. Then have the pitcher throw the change. If she’s dipping down instead of raise her arm, the ball will hit the object as she throws it. This will give her the feedback she needs to know where her hand should go.

Normally I tell the pitcher I’m going to hold it in the regular path of the ball. In truth, I actually hold it lower than that. They really have to work to hit it. But the idea of having it down there is usually enough to make them concerned and to bring the ball a little higher. Once it’s there, the arm is in a weak position — which means the pitcher can throw the ball as hard as she can without risking it being fast.

It’s a great trick, and works every time.

Love the breakthroughs

Tonight I was working with one of my students, a girl named Brigid. (Yes, that’s the correct spelling. I confirmed it with her a while back.)

Brigid had done some pitching a couple of years ago, but a wrist problem stopped her career. She decided to give it a try again this year, and a couple of changes we made earlier has made it possible for her to pitch without pain.

She has had one persistent problem, though: she keeps throwing inside. It’s a habit she’s had a tough time breaking. We were able to figure out that there are a couple of different causes, but one of the main ones has been her arm circle. She tends to let it wander behind her, so at release it has to go out to her right to avoid slamming into her hip.

We’ve tried a few things over the past weeks to try and fix it, but none have had much lasting success. Tonight, though, I think we had a breakthrough.

One of the main causes of her circle problems has been pulling the ball behind her on her backswing. That motion forces her arm out and away, which creates an off-center circle. So tonight we switched her to a barrel roll start. The barrel roll forces her to start with her arms in the center of her body and keep them there until the ball gets overhead. In other words, it completely eliminates one of the main causes.

It wasn’t perfect — she also has a tendency to pull her shoulders up and out at times — but it made a big dent in it. One of the biggest benefits was a rise in her confidence level. She was excited and smiling by the end of the lesson, and inspired to go forward.

Hopefully it will have a lasting effect. Stay tuned.

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